Rep. Celia Israel on the 86th Texas Legislature
“Pandering to 3% of the electorate is not in anyone's best interest”
Celia Israel, a former staffer for Gov. Ann Richards and chair of Austin’s Alliance for Public Transportation, prevailed in a January 2014 special election for the northern Travis County district. She’s served on the House Transportation and Elections committees and as a leader in the House Democratic Caucus. – Austin Sanders
Austin Chronicle: What are your top priorities for the session?
Celia Israel: You would think I'd talk about my three or four top bills, but this is a different session. I'm a transportation chick who fully recognizes the importance of lowering our property taxes and supporting our public school children.
AC: Right. Transportation has been your focus, but you're saying it's time to focus on school finance.
CI: Yeah – to our colleagues across the aisle, "welcome!" (laughs) We've been talking about it for years. Over the summer, I felt like I had the political awareness, from helping others get elected, that public education was the No. 1 issue. I also felt that four years ago, when the court declared our system "byzantine" … if I were the queen of Texas, I would have already called a special session. I don't think the voters of Texas, especially with the turnout we had [in November], are going to accept another blue-ribbon panel. My political sensibilities tell me it's all about timing. The Legislature keeps shedding its responsibility [on] property taxes and support for public schools, [and] the timing is right for us in the House to make a statement about that No. 1 issue. I hope that the Governor will recognize the same and make a stand against the Senate, which is led by a man [Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick] who just had his own close call with the voters. I hope he is also recognizing there's a great bipartisan opportunity here.
Last session was dominated by make-believe crimes and beating up on immigrants; this session, if we do it right, victory is going to be determined by how well we support our future economic viability. That means calming down property taxes and putting in new revenue to support our children, who represent our future economic vitality. Both sides are going to have a win, and then we take it back to voters and ask what they thought of our work. I would love to be a part of that.
We are still working on transportation and online voter registration, and I fully recognize the importance of onboarding 12 new Democrats. We need to make sure they feel welcome, comfortable, supported and strong. It's a team effort.If we are working across party lines and district lines on our No. 1 issue, that helps everybody. I'm excited for the session.
AC: What could school finance reform look like?
CI: Well, we have 67 Democrats now, and we had 52 when I first got here. I don't mean to suggest we're making a Democratic statement; the issue of supporting public schools is a bipartisan one. My [Republican] colleagues who represent the rural parts of Texas are just as passionate about defending public schools as I am.There's a real opportunity for us to make a fist collectively and, by doing so, make a statement to the governor that we need his voice. I may be wrong, but I think the stronger the House is collectively on new revenue … being serious about this topic will give the governor the support he needs to find his voice for things that could be controversial – like new revenue for schools.
AC: Looking back at last session, do you have a sense the Governor was pushed into some of the big political battles?
CI: Yeah. My hope is that the Governor will find his voice and that, after this election, will be bold when it comes to education. To his credit, he's the one that brought up full-day pre-K. So I am hopeful that Gov. Abbott is being thoughtful about his legacy, because I'm thinking about mine, and when I leave this place, I would love to say I was part of achieving full-day, comprehensive pre-K for every Texas child. We have to remember that we're governing through a good economic time. My constituents need jobs, but how many studies do we need to show us how impactful early childhood education is? You've got to put it into those complicated formulas and pay for it.
AC: How can the state pay for these education priorities?
CI: I was glad to hear Comptroller [Glenn] Hegar speak up on the issue of tax exemptions. It's going to be hard; special interests are called special interests for a reason, and they don't want their special interest to be put on the chopping block. They've been quite happy with the status quo. So I am grateful for Hegar's voice, because he is a Republican elected statewide, and he's also not shy about saying there's too much cash in the Economic Stabilization Fund. It doesn't look good on our books that we have so much dang money. It's bad financial practice to have so much cash just sitting there. So, there's some political support from Hegar, and I appreciate him being vocal and unafraid about that. We need to leverage that. My intuition tells me we'll use the regular session to have a robust debate on revenues and whose ideas are the best. I don't mind coming back to work for a special session for something like kids, but I do mind coming back for something like a bathroom bill.
AC: So are you being told to prepare for a special session?
CI: No, it's just my antennae telling me. We're going to work on thousands of bills, and something as difficult as new revenue for public education might involve dozens of those bills. Each one will offer its own solutions, so we have to focus our attention, and we are an unruly, inattentive mob. I suspect we will need to have a special session to finally achieve school finance reform. Everyone who got elected on a platform supporting education will be working toward that goal; they'll have to put their money where their mouths are.
AC: Why are you encouraged about passing progressive legislation this session, compared to 2017?
CI: In political terms, the House will be more beholden to November voters than to primary voters. Most people are November voters, and they want us to get stuff done. They don't want us to just fall on our swords for our party – they want reasonable answers on revenue. I have dogs at home; I don't have children. But I have children in my life, and when I was knocking on doors to get elected, it was made clear to me what people's No. 1 concern was, whether they’re 25 years old or 85 years old.
AC: What transportation policy goals do you have for this session?
CI: I'm hoping to serve again on the Transportation and Elections committees. I find that I'm well suited for it. We need more voices to say we are an urban state and becoming densified in our urban cores. As we become more unaffordable, we need solutions, because the transportation portion of the family budget is getting bigger. My voice is needed. Everytime I bring up the word “transit,” everyone else rolls their eyes; even the urban and suburban members sometimes react that way, though they know better. Transit has become a partisan issue, but I think we can turn that ship around this session. Cities like Houston and Dallas are way ahead of the game, and in other states, cities partner with the state to pull down more federal dollars.
In Texas, an alternatively fueled vehicle that uses little or no gasoline isn't paying into the big transportation purse. So we're working on ways to push new revenue for transportation; it may not mean a lot of revenue, but would help set the stage, because the future of transportation is electric and driverless. Let's get ahead of that curve.
AC: How can the state help realize Project Connect (the Central Texas long-range high-capacity transit plan)?
CI: We have a record of helping cities with transit, [though] it's a very limited record. Capital Metro said we need to expand the [MetroRail] Red Line, which everyone knows we needed to do so it could be more efficient and come more frequently; we had existing track to use that we turned into a little baby system. That takes money and TxDOT gave CapMetro a $50 million grant to do that, which was chump change to TXDOT but a significant lift for CapMetro. So there's a pattern set by TXDOT; we just don't do it very much. If you go to Colorado, they do it a lot.
A little bit of money in a transit system can go a long way, and as air quality and global warming become top-of-mind – whether Republican leadership will admit it publicly or not – transit is part of the solution, especially electrified transit. I'm really happy to have [Capital Metro CEO] Randy Clarke on board with some new ideas and new energy, talking about electrification of the fleet. Transit is an environmental solution, especially when you're talking about cleaner vehicles.
AC: Why is online voter registration an important issue for you?
CI: It's efficiency, saving the taxpayers money, and it's more secure. if I go online and punch in my data, not only am I spelling my name correctly, but the state has my Social Security number and TDL [driver’s license], and it all gets matched up. The Secretary of State gets it verified, and I get a card in the mail with my name spelled correctly. So it's secure and clear. Counties won't have to hire as many temp workers to decipher handwriting. I love that it's just basic good government. These county officials love efficient systems. I've love to be able to deliver that to them in my lifetime.
A big reason it hasn't moved forward is because the clerk in Harris County [Stan Stanart] was adamantly opposed to it. But he lost his bid for reelection. It's a lot easier to kill legislation in Texas than it is to pass it, so getting those negative voices to calm down is a good thing. I'm looking forward to this session [with] the county clerks speaking in unison and saying this is their No. 1 priority, without Harris County throwing doubt out there.
AC: Do you feel like some version of online voter registration can pass this session?
CI: We now have over 30 states with online voter registration. Arizona was the first to do it, and Oklahoma did a few years ago. These are not blue states making this happen, so it's time for Texas to step up. There's a good opportunity for us to do it. Carol Alvarado was working on this issue before I came on board, and now that she's in the Senate, I expect her to be a champion for it over there. It's good government; let's make it happen. We'll have a new chair of the elections committee, the Harris County speed bump has been dealt with by the voters, more states have passed similar measures, so it's a good time to do it.
The other thing is that Texas is a young state. Younger people are open to technological solutions. We've had Texas.gov for generations now. We know we can do online registration; we do it now! When you go to DPS, a clerk asks you if you want to register to vote. If you say "yes," that person hits a button on her computer and all your data is sent in. You get a card in the mail. We do it under the [federal] Help America Vote Act. So no one can say we can't do it. The Secretary of State’s office has testified that we can do it. It should not be a scary thing for us.
AC: What are some of your other goals this session?
CI: I want to avoid fighting on social issues. Being a member of the LGBTQ community, I don't have an appetite for those fights. When we focus on that, it means we're not focusing on the big stuff. Last session was miserable, so I want to speak to [Dennis] Bonnen about it. He shares my displeasure with our priorities from last session. He and I came here at the same time [in the 1990s] – he as a baby state representative and I as a staffer for Gov. Richards. We remember what it used to be like around here. We used to get things done. I know that Bonnen loves the House and I've come to love it too. I'm happy to leverage his statement that public education is a No. 1 priority. Let's make that come true for both sides of the aisle.
AC: What advice do you have for the new Democratic members entering the House?
CI: We have to talk to one another. I would encourage any member to avoid operating in a silo. You're not your own man or woman, with your own staff. You're part of a team, and we can be stronger when we're talking to one another, sharing best practices. It's like mentorship; people want to help you. I've gotten a lot of good advice from my Republican colleagues, so don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be alone. Even if you think you know the answer; sharing information is what we do here. This is like 9th grade (laughs). Go talk to someone you don't know and make a friend! We are a family in the House of Representatives, and Bonnen knows that. That makes me feel better about him.
And pandering to 3% of the electorate is not in anyone's best interest. The most significant help I’ve gotten as a legislator was having historic turnout on Nov. 6 of this year. Having that kind of turnout is going to make a world of difference this session.